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Thomas J. Rowe, who was born in Cambridge, Mass., named Don CeSar Beach Resort for a character in his favorite opera.
Thomas J. Rowe, who was born in Cambridge, Mass., named Don CeSar Beach Resort for a character in his favorite opera. (Globe Photo / Patricia Borns)

A beach colony steeped in the sands of history

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2007
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ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. - In my teens I bought a used car because its seats smelled like suntan lotion. In college, my idea of a winter sport was driving to Daytona Beach. As some people divine water, I gravitate to beaches. On a recent trip to Long Key, my divining rod went wild at a point on St. Pete Beach where the Don CeSar Beach Resort presides like a grand dame.

Here, the condos end and a historic neighborhood 31 blocks long by one block wide begins, its bungalows like vintage postcards, exuberantly gardened with ginger lilies and coconut palms. On one side, Boca Ciega Bay, on the other, the Gulf of Mexico, 200 yards apart. Kicking off our shoes, my fiance and I dashed to the nearest dune walkover and cooled our toes in the sea.

Welcome to Pass-A-Grille, the oldest, most storied beach community on Florida's west coast. Named for 18th-century "grilleurs" who dried fish on its white sands, it is one of 11 towns strung along the barrier islands that stand sentinel outside Tampa Bay. Locals call these towns the Gulf Beaches. But lumping them together as extensions of St. Petersburg or Clearwater would be "a gaucherie," said Frank Hurley, local historian and octogenarian. Scratch the surface, and you will find that the July day in 1957 when Pass-A-Grille and the other municipalities were merged into St. Pete Beach is never far from local memory. "We call it Pass-A-Grille, never 'the Grille,' " said Hurley's brother Ken, saving me from a common gaffe.

Our address in the autumn shoulder season was 1 Pass-A-Grille Way, a colony of five weathered, kitchen-equipped cottages called Island's End. True to its name, the property with gazebos and tinkling fountains clings to Long Key's southern tip where Spanish ships once entered to draw water from artesian wells.

Never more than a block away is the beach: fluffy with dunes and sea oats, wide enough for jogging, and undeveloped except for a cheerful yellow concession complete with outdoor showers, mini-beach store, and Bernard Johnson's Seaside Grille. Sunsets brought fishermen and gulls to wade among schooling greenback minnows and newlyweds to pose for photographs silhouetted against the sky. A ritual bell rang at twilight, and revelers filled the rooftop bar of the Hurricane, a sunset institution with 360-degree island views.

A local woman whom we stopped for directions to the supermarket pointed us to Shaners Land & Sea Market, a gourmet neighborhood larder. "My husband and I don't go north of the Don CeSar unless we have to evacuate for a hurricane," she said. For the most part, neither did we.

Like visitors since F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we found contentment within a small orbit. One of Pass-A-Grille's simple pleasures is walking the avenues and alleys of pastel beach houses, which we did many times using self-guided walking tours. On our first day we got no farther than the aqua-trimmed porch of Comfort and Joy, with its streaming flags and George, a white standard poodle. Proprietors Angie Cheak and Mary Ann Kelley, who came here on vacation and never left, dispense their own relishes and jams, works of local artists, and on weekends, organic produce gathered from area farms. In the spirit of Southern front porch hospitality, neighbors and friends stop by to chew the fat.

History here is as fresh in people's minds as today's news. Margaret Herman and her husband, Ken, restored the island's oldest house, built circa 1885 by Union Army veteran Zephaniah Phillips. In Florida's resort boom years, Herman said her neighbor served Joe DiMaggio and his fellow Yankees at the striped-awninged Sea Horse, still a popular breakfast spot. Before we reached the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum on 10th Avenue, we knew that the house known as Banyan Tree Cottage once belonged to President Harding's mistress Carrie Phillips, and that actress Norma Talmadge sought solace at 1805 Pass-A-Grille Way during her downward career slide.

In the 1940s Robert Ripley of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" called Eighth Avenue America's shortest main street. Today it still serves as downtown, a one-block strip whose businesses, except for the Post Office, are all locally owned. I hesitated before the handsomely restored storefront of jewelry designer Evander Preston. A gray-bearded eminence on a bicycle turned out to be the artist himself who escorted us inside.

The son of musician parents who moved here from a North Carolina mountaintop, Preston learned jewelry-making in the silver-mining town of Taxco, Mexico. From earring and bracelet collections to the pieces that push the envelope - a 14-karat gold electric train with diamond headlight and a sterling silver toilet bowl plunger - his work stands out. The artist's personal collection of fine art and artifacts forms a backdrop to the jewelry, as absorbing as any house museum.

Through a doorway lighted with a neon Eccentric Club sign, we entered the kitchen where Preston enjoys cooking on a restaurant-grade tandoor. Visitors came and went while we sipped the store's signature sangria served by Preston's daughter Heather and longtime friend Eddie St. Clair. When he heard us discussing Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Adam T., an artist and glam punk rocker, suggested we sit at the bar rather than a table. (From the bar, the renowned aged beef can be ordered on a sandwich and a $400 wine might be sampled in a $12 glass.)

We continued on to the bay end of Eighth Street, where boat operators run several excursions from Merry Pier. Alva Shoalty offers a 15-minute ferry ride to Shell Island, which is especially loved by children and landlocked adults who return with bulging bags of sand dollars and whelks (none alive, of course). Just beyond the broad mouth of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key has an evocative sense of abandonment that makes a rewarding day trip. Ten minutes by car, the five keys that form Fort De Soto State Park are surrounded by beautiful, shallow water perfect for kayaking (the onsite outfitter charges $55 a day; bring your own if you can).

We made our way to the Don CeSar at Pass-A-Grille's northern limit for our final night. "The Don," as it's known, will celebrate 80 years in January since Thomas J. Rowe (born in Cambridge, Mass.) built and named it for Don Caesar de Bazan, a character in his favorite opera, "Maritana." From good times to bad, the hotel housed celebrities, wounded war veterans, and by 1970, drifters and pigeons. Pass-A-Grille's June Hurley Young led the effort to save it from the wrecking ball.

As befits a grand pink hotel, today's Don again caters to dreams. Some 300 weddings a year are held in its tropical gulf-view garden. Guests luxuriate in its striped cabanas as if starring in their own movies. At Sunday brunch when food stations fill the King Charles Ballroom, we were fascinated by a bottomless cornucopia of fresh shrimp, oysters, mussels, scallops, sashimi-grade tuna, and caviar ($89.88 for two).

Like Pass-A-Grille itself, the Don was hard to leave.

Patricia Borns, a freelance writer on Amelia Island, Fla., can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Getting there

Pass-A-Grille is at the south end of St. Pete Beach, three minutes from Interstate 75 and a 33-minute drive from Tampa International Airport. Getting around Suncoast Beach Trolley 727-540-1900 psta.net/beachtrolley.htm for schedule and map. Serves the Gulf beach communities, $1.50. Merry Pier 801 Pass-A-Grille Way Rent bikes for $22 a day or $60 a week. What to do Gulf Beaches Historical Museum 115 10th Ave. 727-552-1610 Displays archives and artifacts of the barrier islands from the 1500s to present. Publishes a self-guided walking tour. Admission free. Deep-sea fishing and barrier island excursions 727-360-1400 charterboatescape.com/merry _pier_offshore_tackle_shel_ island_florida.htm Depart daily from Merry Pier. Evander Preston Contemporary Jewelry Design 106 Eighth Ave. 727-367-7894 or 800-586-EVAN evanderpreston.com Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Where to stay Pass-A-Grille's popular smaller lodgings often fill a year in advance for the winter-spring season. Island's End Resort 1 Pass-A-Grille Way 727-360-5023 islandsend.com Fully equipped cottages start at $135. Inn On the Beach 1401 Gulf Way 727-360-8844 innonbeach.com Reasonable and inviting. Rooms with kitchenettes start at $95. Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa 3400 Gulf Blvd. 727-360-1881, 866-728-2206 doncesar.com Standard rooms start at $229. Packages and promotions available. Frank T. Hurley Associates 2506 Pass-A-Grille Way 727-367-1949 hurley-associates.com Largest selection of rentals two weeks or longer. Hurley wrote the book on Pass-A-Grille, $8 at the Gulf Beaches museum. Where to eat Shaners Land & Sea Market 2000 Pass-A-Grille Way 727-367-4292 Everything for the self-catered holiday. Comfort and Joy 808 Pass-A-Grille Way 727-367-5925 Farmers' market Friday through Sunday emphasizes organic produce reasonably priced. Wharf Restaurant & Bar 2001 Pass-A-Grille Way 727-367-9469 wharfrestaurant.org Quintessential local seafood shack on the water. Love the plexiglass windows. Oyster sandwiches, captain's platters - go ahead, order it fried. The Black Palm 109 8th Ave. 727-360-5000 blackpalmrestaurant.com Latin ingredients receive a high-end finish but the best recipes are rustic, courtesy of the Chilean chef's mother. Information mypass-a-grille.com For general information. floridahistory.org/westcoastfla/passagr.htm For a walking tour you can print out.

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